chief concerns Richard Marinucci
Learning from Wildland Firefighting
Whenever I start to write about wildland firefighting, I feel obligated to disclose that I have virtually no experience in this arena. Yet, I am interested in the topic in that there is much to be learned from studying the approach taken to organize the suppression efforts, the need for qualifications, and the public information aspects.
There is also a consideration that one should learn as much as he can about his profession because those on the outside will often turn to their perceived “experts” when they want information. With the newsworthiness of the massive fires a high priority, often fire service members will be asked their opinion and being a little prepared is not a bad thing. Though the communities where I have worked are not threatened by wildland fires, I view the opportunity they provide to engage in discussions with policy makers and citizens who may be interested.
A few years ago, I had an interesting question posed to me by a friend and fellow employee in the community where I worked. He is good guy and always expressed interest in the fire service. He said his wife wanted to know about the risk to their home and family from a wildland fire since there were a lot of trees in their neighborhood. She saw the devastation of some fires out West and naturally was curious as to their risk level. Now, I told my friend that I think he was using his wife to ask the question, but I really think he wanted to know! To my friend and his wife, trees were trees, dry was dry, and wind was wind. They were not in tune with the fuel difference, the Santa Ana winds, and the severe dryness because of a lack of rainfall that created the drought. They, like many, liked living among the trees and wanted to make sure they took steps to lessen their exposure. I assured them of the vastly different circumstances and that their risk was almost zero. In fact, if they were ever in a position to have a big fire, there were other problems that would have greatly preceded that. I think that just hearing from someone else was helpful, even in a small way.
One example of learning from the wildland experience is the incident command system. Before there was such a thing or the National Incident Management System (NIMS), there was FIRESCOPE. It was a system developed to gain control and manage an incident that covered a large area and took a lot of time. There were many work periods to consider, and the number of people needed was beyond almost every structural fire situation. Command and control were vital. Back in the 1970s, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief Alan Brunacini thought there was much to be learned and gathered some of his staff and made a road trip. They took the lessons learned and developed what he called Fire Ground Command. It was essentially taking the elements of a working system and applying the concepts to structural firefighting.
The wildland system has been way ahead of developing incident action plans (IAPs) and using incident management teams (IMTs). In essence, fire department responses to structural fires have had an action plan and a management team. The team was the fire chief (now incident commander) and the plan was in his head. I don’t expect an IMT to be set up or a formal IAP to be written, but the concepts of thoughtful planning and processing will only help attain a better outcome. It included not only the basics of fire attack but also appropriate risk management and safety considerations. For the most part, structural firefighting starts off on “autopilot” and is adjusted as needed. This can lead to complacency and careless mistakes. Assuming a more formal approach can help lessen the chances of mistakes attributed to not thinking.
PUBLIC RELATIONS AND INFORMATION
When it comes to public relations and public information, wildland personnel do it really well. They provide great information, are always prepared, know how to speak “news,” and deliver useful facts. They deliver what the media wants and control the discussion. The facts tell the story, and they come off as experts in the field. Anticipation of questions is part of it. Think of how that would work for structure fires or other localized events. If fire departments were better prepared for media coverage, they would have better answers. It should not be too difficult to anticipate questions and have some pat answers ready. It is also good to have the right spokesperson who lends credibility to the coverage. This is an area where perception becomes reality and professionalism is established. The public will develop its opinion of your fire department based on how you present your information. Work on the message and who will deliver it.
The wildland mutual-aid system is huge and robust. It would not be possible without standards, training, and certification. To operate in specific positions, one has to have a “red” card. This lets everyone know that qualifications are being met. If you compare this to many of the other mutual aid systems, this is definitely something that could be emulated and would improve service delivery. In many cases, there is no verification of ongoing training or even certifications beyond the minimum of a particular state. Recently, I was talking to a firefighter who was lamenting that the last time the mutual aid companies arrived, they were not disciplined, nor did they follow the local protocols and policies, particularly with regard to safety operations. There was no standardization or consistency. Think how much better service would be if training and certifications were consistent and measurable. Too often it is just a case of calling the closest unit regardless of their preparation.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who respond to the large wildland fires. As much as I have enjoyed my experiences as a firefighter, I have never had a desire to respond to one of the “really big ones.” I do believe that there is much to learn, and the basic principles of fire extinguishment apply. They do use all sides of the fire triangle as they will try to remove the fuel ahead of the fire. Wildland fires are probably the only fires that are experiencing growth, both in number and size. These events receive tremendous media coverage, and the entire country is interested in these large-scale events. There are things that can be learned from the operations, and all fire service professionals can benefit both from application to their jobs and providing information to their interested citizens.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.